The great gamble
by Michael Dresdner
Rarely do people say “it’s better than the book,” but The Great Gatsby at Tacoma Little Theatre is one such example. By putting together a flat-out amazing cast, director Dale Westgaard turned a multiple, triangulated love story into a showcase for outstanding performances, from the strong, compelling leads right down to the solid supporting ensemble parts.
L to R: Daisy (Veronica Tuttell), Gatsby (Rodman Bolek) Photos courtesy of DK Photography
Make no mistake; it was the cast who made this play a wonderful experience. Yes, the production support was there, but this is one case where the acting, pardon the phrase, took center stage.
The story begins on the fashionable shores of East and West Egg in 1922, where nouveau riche Jay Gatsby throws endless stylish parties fueled by bootleg booze. Said parties are spied on by old-money conservative Tom Buchanan and his yearning wife, Daisy, who was in love with Gatsby before he became wealthy, and before she married Tom. Gatsby’s goal is to win Daisy away from her husband and pretend the intervening years never happened. Tom’s goal is to bed other women but still keep Daisy. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, Daisy’s cousin, an appropriately moral Midwesterner who observes and gets involved, but can never adopt the loose ethics of this crowd of exciting Eastern swells. Naturally, it eventually all goes wrong, and everyone ends up either disappointed or dead.
Now for the fun part; the players.
Rodman Bolek plays a cool, stoic Jay Gatsby, convincing in both his love for Daisy and as a character who could have gone from rags to riches quickly through sheer determination (and a handy mob connection.) Veronica Tuttell crafts a Daisy that is fragile, passionate, weak, and confused, with a timorous voice and a winsome mien that makes it easy to see why both Jay and Tom want her. Jacob Tice, as her husband Tom, is amazing as the quintessential swaggering, sneering bully; a wealthy, right-thinking member of the superior race.
L to R:Myrtle (Stacia Russell) and Tom (Jacob Tice)
Daisy’s recently arrived Midwestern cousin Nick Carraway is well-crafted by Kelly Mackay, who shows a fine balance while straddling the innocent, moral imperative with which he was raised and the enticing allure of money, women, illicit booze, and the pursuit of pure fun. He’s loved and pursued by the exceptionally sultry Jordan Baker, appealingly brought to life by Ana Bury.
L to R: Jordan (Ana Bury) and Nick (Kelly Mackay)
Stacia Russell treats us to, among other scenes, a wonderful drunken rage as Myrtle Wilson who is in a rather one-sided illicit affair with user Tom Buchanan. She also does a great contentious scene with her poor, benighted husband George, played by Mason Quinn, who gives us a painfully accurate portrayal of a timid man taken advantage of by both his wife and her lover, a man he thinks is his friend.
No less impressive was the thoroughly believable chemistry between all the couples, whether loving or contentious. That goes for Nick and Jordan, Tom and Daisy, Jay and Daisy, Tom and Myrtle, and George and Myrtle.
I won’t mention all the supporting players (I’ll leave that to my dear friend Lynn Geyer) but I will say they were worthy of the leads, from Kerry Bringman’s mob heavy Meyer Wolfsheim to the earnest witness, Mrs. Michaelis (Kaylie Rainer) who, behind the main action, recreates the events of the car accident in mime for the policeman’s benefit.
To solve the insurmountable problem of a play with many lavish indoor and outdoor scenes, designer Blake York gambled on minimalist; no sets at all. Instead, there was a large screen at the back of the stage on which was projected images of an appropriately elegant room, picturesque garden, roadside, or shoreline. The one downside to that was that when the stage lighting came up, it washed out the image a bit, and there were times when actors cast shadows on the scrim.
Nor were there a lot of props or furniture pieces; just a few chairs that doubled as couch or car seats, a drink cart or two, and at one point, an armoire. What scene changes there were, mostly moving chairs and drink carts on and off stage, were done not by shadowy, black-clad stagehands, but by minions in livery, yet another delightful touch.
The upshot of this was that the actors were very naked on stage; they had almost nothing in the way of props, furniture, or set to distract the audience or aid them. Consequently, there was intense focus on their acting alone. Such a minimalist set could be a disaster for a weaker cast, but in this case it reinforced just how outstanding these actors were. In short, the gamble paid off, thanks to a superb cast.
And the costumes? Divine. Frequent changes meant MANY lavish period costumes by Michele Graves, appropriate not only for the time and income, but for the character personalities as well, right down to Gatsby’s swim suit and Daisy’s classic fringe flapper dress. Equally outstanding were the sweet wigs by Jeffery Weaver. A nod as well to Ben Levine for sound design and Pavlina Morris for lighting, but a double nod to choreographer Elizabeth Richmond Posluns, who must have had her hands full getting a few of the less-than-spritely dancers on stage to do flapper era steps.
While this production is a surprise and delight, there’s a bit of bad news. This is a short run; only three weeks. So GO NOW! Don’t miss it. And if there are any high school groups out there listening, seeing this is vastly more pleasant than trudging through the book. If you have to read The Great Gatsby, plan a trip to TLT. I wish I could have done that when I was in high school.
The Great Gatsby
Jan. 23 to Feb. 8, 2015
Tacoma Little Theatre